An international human rights watchdog has urged Kazakhstan to repeal controversial new legislation allowing the government to impose tight restrictions on journalists during emergencies.
The “blanket emergency restrictions” that came into force on April 12 are “unjustified and overreaching,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said in an April 15 statement.
The new controls “expose just how far the authorities are willing to go to muzzle the media outlets and independent society groups they deem threatening,” Williamson added.
The decree governing “additional measures and temporary restrictions” obliges editors to seek prior government approval for anything they wish to publish during emergencies (which could include anything from political, social, or industrial unrest to natural disasters). It also gives the authorities the right to suspend or close media outlets and suspend political parties.
The restrictions are “barefaced government censorship,” Williamson said, and “extend far beyond any reasonable and proportional restrictions and violate Kazakhstan’s international commitments.”
The legislation comes into force as Astana watches the escalating crisis in Ukraine and seeks to keep a lid on any manifestations of discontent at home.
All three South Caucasus countries and Kazakhstan have doubled their military spending since 2004, among only 23 countries around the with that distinction, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Neighboring Afghanistan, Belarus, China, and Russia also made the list, confirming again the Eurasia region as a particularly tense place.
Azerbaijan, unsurprisingly, was the region's leader, with defense expenditure nearly quintupling over the last decade. And that was the second-greatest increase in the world over that period, beaten only by Afghanistan, which obviously started from a relatively low level in 2004. The data from the Caucasus and Central Asia:
Armenia: $427 million in 2013, up 115 percent since 2004.
Azerbaijan: $3.44 billion in 2013, up 493 percent since 2004
Georgia: $443 million in 2013, up 230 percent since 2004
Kazakhstan: $2.8 billion in 2013, up 248 percent since 2004
Among the report's other findings:
-- Over the last year, Russia’s military spending increased by 4.8 per cent, "and for the ﬁrst time since 2003 it spent a bigger share of its GDP on the military than the USA."
-- Over the same period, Kazakhstan saw among the biggest defense spending increases in the Asia-Pacific region, with a ten percent increase, despite enjoying what SIPRI called an "essentially peaceful security environment."
-- Turkey entered the list of 15 top defense spenders worldwide, spending $19.1 billion in 2013.
-- China's defense spending in 2013 increased 7.4 percent over the previous year.
As Ukraine battles pro-Russia separatists in its east, Kazakhstan is holding nationwide security drills to check the ability of its law enforcement forces to maintain public order. Some of the exercises are being held in areas abutting Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia.
The drills are designed to coordinate responses of the police, army, and emergency services if “crisis situations” arise, Kazinform reports. Underlining their significance, Security Council head Kayrat Kozhamzharov is personally overseeing the maneuvers and Prime Minister Karim Masimov is observing.
Astana has supported the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula last month. Yet the pro-Russian activists making trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk cannot fail to arouse consternation within the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan is home to a large ethnic Russian minority, which forms 22 percent of the overall population, but a far higher proportion in northern areas along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
On April 9 EurasiaNet.org witnessed riot police in the sleepy Altay mountain town of Ridder, where ethnic Russians make up 85 percent of the population, marching out of the city police precinct. The security forces, helmets donned and sporting riot shields, batons and assault rifles, were headed out for “training,” one officer said.
As leaders across the former Soviet Union watch another predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine demand independence this week, Astana is mulling legislation that would jail anyone who calls for separatism in Kazakhstan.
Under a proposed amendment to the criminal code, Kazakhstanis could get 10 years in prison for making "illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Arman Ayaganov of Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's office told journalists April 8, Tengrinews reports.
"The article refers to serious [offenses] and the first part provides a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to seven years. If these same actions would be performed by a person using his official position, up to 10 years," Ayaganov added.
The amendment would cover calls for separatism or independence made in the media, including the Internet – and thus, it seems, on social media platforms like Facebook.
In February, Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky sparked outrage in Astana by suggesting Russia should reabsorb Central Asia.
Following the admission by embattled Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera this week that its operations in Kazakhstan and four other countries had breached the company’s own ethical requirements and may have broken the law, the firm is bracing itself for a new round of scrutiny.
TeliaSonera's dealings with the rich and powerful in Uzbekistan, where its payments of millions of dollars to an intermediary of Gulnara Karimova’s, the president’s daughter, have already put the company in the crosshairs of investigators in Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States. TeliaSonera is also linked to a money-laundering probe in Switzerland in which Karimova is a suspect.
Now questions are being asked about TeliaSonera’s dealings in neighboring Kazakhstan, where it owns the Kcell brand (with 14.1 million subscribers in a country with a population of 17 million). Kazakhstan’s media has previously noted some striking similarities between TeliaSonera’s modus operandi in the two countries—namely its dealings with business people well connected to the powers-that-be and with links to rival companies.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is at the heart of several international corruption probes involving its activities in Uzbekistan. Now it says it may have broken the law in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries, as well.
An external review of TeliaSonera's dealings in five countries has found that “several transactions, and actions during [2007-2013] have been conducted in a manner inconsistent with sound business practice and TeliaSonera’s ethical requirements,” board chair Marie Ehrling told an Annual General Meeting on April 2.
“It cannot even be ruled out that certain conduct has been in violation of the law,” she said.
The review, commissioned last April and conducted by international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, covered Nepal, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Georgia but focused mainly on the first three countries.
Ehrling did not specify which transactions may have been unethical or illegal, but said the review mainly concerned the “establishing of operations and acquisitions of companies and licenses.”
Areas of concern included “substantial payments to advisors and intermediaries for, among other things, lobbying activities; lack of control of business partners; and inadequate handling of warning signs.”
“One area singled out is the inadequate governance of the Eurasian operations,” Ehrling said.
A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
Officials have raided the editorial office of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent newspapers, as it emerged that a court has ruled in secret to close it down.
Bailiffs “burst into the office” of the Assandi-Times in Almaty on April 2 and announced that they planned to seal the premises, the newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The bailiffs cited a court order that the newspaper’s staff said they knew nothing about.
A court had ruled to shut the newspaper down on April 1, the Adil Soz (Free Speech) media freedom NGO said in an April 2 statement, although “none of the newspaper’s staff had been informed about the trial or about the legal claim.”
The court ruled after deeming the Assandi-Times to be part of a banned group of media outlets under the “Respublika” brand. Prosecutors closed the investigative Respublika newspaper and associated outlets in 2012 after alleging that their coverage of fatal riots in the western town of Zhanaozen the previous year was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state.
Russian Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles on parade. (photo: MoD of Russia)
Russia is planning to move missiles close to the border with Kazakhstan, ostensibly in preparation for instability coming from Afghanistan. But a number of analysts say that the move is instead a show of force occasioned by the crisis in Ukraine.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported, citing Ministry of Defense officials, that Russia is planning to deploy Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles to the Orenburg region, about 100 kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan. The rockets would be ready to quickly be deployed into Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and "would protect Russia and former Soviet republics from possible external threats from Central Asia," Izvestia wrote. Construction is underway to build facilities for the missiles at the Totskoye-2 military base and the missiles are supposed to be deployed by the end of the year.
"Our government has said that the Central Asian vector is considered the most worrying, in connection with the reduced presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The exit of the Americans can lead to the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan," Vasiliy Kashin, a military analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told Izvestia. "In this case Russia's Central Military Region would need to be ready to move quickly to help Kazakhstan defense its borders. Kazakhstan's own forces are not very large."
The voting table for the Ukraine resolution at the UN on March 27, tweeted by John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, president of the 68th Session of the General Assembly.
This week Russia told its former vassals in Central Asia to fall in line and support its position on Ukraine at the United Nations—or else. That’s the claim of a Reuters report looking at the behind-the-scenes maneuvers ahead of the March 27 UN General Assembly resolution declaring Crimea’s secession from Ukraine invalid.
Allegations that Moscow bullies its neighbors will be unsurprising in Central Asia, where Russia’s economic and military clout still reign supreme, and stories abound of Russian special services manipulating the levers of power, especially in poorer places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
One hundred countries voted in favor of the resolution, 11 – mostly Russian allies – against. Fifty-eight abstained and 24 didn’t show up for the vote. None of the Central Asian countries voted for the resolution. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among the no-shows.
Russia condemned the vote, and criticized the "deep interference of a number of Western countries in Ukraine's affairs."
For certain, major powers often use carrots and sticks to buy votes at the UN. But Russia, according to the Reuters report, resorted to “political blackmail and economic threats.”
According to interviews with U.N. diplomats, most of whom preferred to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Moscow, the targets of Russian threats included Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as a number of African countries.